Threatened Spitzer Telescope Gets NASA Nod For Extension, Subject To Congress Funding

After NASA recommended in May that Spitzer space telescope officials send in a revised budget or face possible termination of operations, in a turnaround, the agency’s science mission directorate has now agreed to extend the mission for another two years.

The news broke on Twitter yesterday when the NASA Spitzer account shared the news. An update posted on its website said the decision is “subject to the availability of Congressional appropriations in FY [fiscal year] 2015”, but added that there will soon be a call out for observing time in that period.

Previously, NASA informed Spitzer officials that due to “constrained budget conditions” that their initial request to extend operations past fiscal 2015 was not approved, in line with recommendations from the NASA senior astrophysics review. While the mission was not terminated at that time, officials were asked to “respond with a request for a budget augmentation to conduct continued operations with reduced operations costs.”

The mission was being reviewed at the same time as other astrophysics missions, such as the Kepler planet-hunting space telescope that was asking for (and received) a new mission that would allow it to do useful science despite two busted reaction wheels, or pointing devices. The review said Spitzer was the most expensive of the missions reviewed, and that the telescope’s abilities were “significantly reduced” after it ran out of coolant in 2009.

The bow shock of Zeta Ophiuchi, another runaway star observed by Spitzer (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The bow shock of Zeta Ophiuchi, another runaway star observed by Spitzer (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In an update on the Spitzer website, officials shared more details but did not say if the budget had been reformulated in response to NASA’s suggestion.

We are very happy to report that Spitzer operations have been extended by the NASA Science Mission Directorate for two more years! The letter of direction states: “The Science Mission Directorate has made the decision to extend Spitzer operations for the next two years. The Spitzer observatory is an important resource for on-going infrared observations for research programs across the Science Mission Directorate, and, subject to the availability of Congressional appropriations in FY 2015, it will be continued. Both the Astrophysics and the Planetary Science Divisions have requested observing time commitments for FY 2015, and both Divisions have committed funding to support their observations.” We are working hard to get a call for observing proposals issued by the end of July. And thank you to all the people at NASA Headquarters and in the community that have worked so hard to support science with Spitzer.

In recent months, some of Spitzer’s work has included searching for targets for NASA’s asteroid mission, helping to find the coldest brown dwarf ever discovered, and assisting in challenging views about star cluster formation.

Spitzer Mission Extension Not Approved In NASA Senior Review; Officials Say Budget Rewrite Possible

“Constrained budget conditions” have prompted NASA to not approve a funding extension for the 11-year-old Spitzer Space Telescope after fiscal 2015, but Spitzer officials emphasized that doesn’t necessarily mean the mission is terminated.

“To be clear: Spitzer has not been canceled. Funding not yet identified, but NASA has asked us for a revised budget,” the Spitzer Twitter account wrote to several individuals after news broke that the telescope was not approved in agency’s Senior Review, a process to see how well ongoing missions are performing to expectations.

What this means is that the telescope is expected to go with the “baseline” plan to finish operations after the end of fiscal 2014 and terminate the mission by the end of fiscal 2015, a process that was already outlined in the NASA budget request for 2015. But there’s a chance, officials said, that this would not happen.

“The Spitzer project is invited to respond with a request for a budget augmentation to conduct continued operations with reduced operations costs,” read the NASA response to the 2014 senior review.

The bow shock of Zeta Ophiuchi, another runaway star observed by Spitzer (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The bow shock of Zeta Ophiuchi, another runaway star observed by Spitzer (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This “will be considered during the FY 2016 budget formulation process,” NASA added. “If the administration proposes additional funding for Spitzer in the FY16 Budget, the project will be able to seamlessly continue operations in FY15, while awaiting final appropriations from the Congress for FY16.”

The mission was being reviewed in association with several other astrophysics missions, such as the Kepler space telescope — an exoplanet-hunting probe that was sidelined by a mechanical issue, but was approved in the same review for a new mission.

Spitzer drew concern in the senior review for its “significant current cost”, which is reportedly the most expensive among the missions being considered this time around. The cost also concerned the reviewers because Spitzer’s “observational capabilities are significantly reduced” since the telescope ran out of coolant in 2009.

That said, the so-called “warm” Spitzer mission — which allows it to view different parts of the infrared despite operating at a higher temperature — did impress reviewers with its ability to measure light, especially since it has been able to conduct wide-field surveys that “will not be approached” until the James Webb Space Telescope goes to orbit in 2018.

The 'Mountains of Creation' in the W5 region near Perseus, taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / CfA
The ‘Mountains of Creation’ in the W5 region near Perseus, taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / CfA

“The cost is particularly difficult in the context of an observatory with greatly reduced capabilities with respect to its prime mission,” the review read. “The mission also did not present substantial plans to reduce operations costs with such reduced capabilities. Given the budget climate, the SRP cannot recommend funding of Spitzer at the levels requested.”

While criticizing the cost, the senior review also noted Spitzer has been doing a lot of “unexpected science” such as looking at the atmosphere of exoplanets and brown dwarfs, and identifying the galaxies that are speeding away from Earth the fastest (also known as “high-redshift galaxies.”)

According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these are some of Spitzer’s other notable finds:

– Seeing light from a planet outside of the solar system, which was not in the design plans;

– Surveying stars in formation in clouds that are relatively close to Earth;

– Creating a better map of the Milky Way’s spiral arms.

NASA also regularly does image releases with wavelengths from all three of its “Great Observatories”: Spitzer, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Funding extension for both Chandra and Hubble were approved in the review. You can read more about the review at this website.